How Should I Take My Pension?

The number of pension plans decreased to just 46,700 in 2017, from 103,000 in 1975. At the same time, defined-contribution plans, such as the 401(k) grew to 662,800, from 207,700, says CNBC’s recent article entitled “Pandemic creates pension plan tension: Take the lump sum or trust lifetime payments.”

With so many companies trying to regain their financial footing in the coronavirus pandemic, a retiring employee’s decision to take either a lump sum or lifetime payments from their pension might end up in one simple question: whether they believe that the company will be able to meet its long-term commitments. It’s one of the primary considerations that employees have, when doing this kind of analysis.

A tricky part of making a decision about how to receive your pension benefits is that retirees typically like the idea of guaranteed income for life, which makes electing continuing payments more appealing than a lump sum.

If you want to stay on as a plan participant, make sure you have confidence in the company’s ability to make those future payments. While the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) would step in if the company failed to meet its obligations, it may pay only a portion of promised benefits.

If you’re thinking about a lump sum, due to fear of your employer folding or otherwise struggling to meet its pension obligations, know that the amount offered is usually less in comparison to the amount you’re promised to get, over time, if you were to stay in the plan. However, because interest rates are generally low, lump sum offers have been bigger than they’d be if rates were high. Consequently, when interest rates go up, the guaranteed-income option is higher, and the lump sums go down.

If you opt to remain in the pension plan rather than taking the lump sum, the amount you’ll get may be fixed for life, because pensions typically don’t have a cost-of-living adjustment. While some pensions offer spousal benefits (when you die, your spouse would continue getting a continuing, but reduced amount of your payments), there’s nothing left for heirs. Therefore, death ends the plan’s obligations to you, your family and your heirs.

Alternatively, if you take the lump sum, you might have some money remaining at the end of your life that could be left to non-spousal heirs.

Any decision should be made with regard for the rest of your financial plan. It is worth making certain you believe in the company’s long-term viability. The counsel of an experienced financial advisor should be sought when evaluating your options.

Reference: CNBC (June 8, 2020) “Pandemic creates pension plan tension: Take the lump sum or trust lifetime payments”

Social Security Issues, if You’re Self-Employed

Did you know that when you’re self-employed, you’re thought of by the IRS as both the employee and the employer? Therefore, it’s your job to withhold Social Security from your earnings—contributing the employer’s matching portion of Social Security and the individual’s portion. Instead of withholding Social Security taxes from each paycheck and, because many self-employed people don’t get regular paychecks, you pay all the Social Security taxes on your earnings, when you file your annual federal income tax return. This is both your personal contribution and your business’ contribution.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “How Social Security Works for the Self-Employed” explains how to calculate the Social Security taxes you owe, if you’re self-employed.

IRS Schedule SE is where you report your business’ net profit or loss as calculated on Schedule C. The federal government uses this information to calculate the Social Security benefits you’ll be entitled to in the future. Self-employment tax consists of both the employee and employer portion of Social Security (6.2% + 6.2% = 12.4%), as well as the employee and employer portion of Medicare (1.45% + 1.45% = 2.9%). Therefore, the total the self-employment tax rate is 15.3%.

If you are self-employed, what you pay in Social Security taxes is derived from your net income. On Schedule SE, you multiply your business’ net profit or loss as calculated on Schedule C by 92.35%, then you see how much self-employment tax you owe.

Note that the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act lets employers defer employee Social Security taxes through Dec. 31, 2020—50% of the deferred amount will be due Dec. 31, 2021, and the other half by Dec. 31, 2022. Good news: this break also applies to the self-employed.

There are many business expenses that the self-employed can use to decrease their tax liability, in addition to the Social Security tax deductions you can take when you’re self-employed. Business expenses reduce your overall tax, which ultimately lowers your Social Security taxes. These tax deductions are a way of minimizing self-employment tax and Social Security taxes. However, you should know that this can be a negative as far as your Social Security benefit calculations. That’s because these are based in part on your taxable earnings. The more deductions you have, the lower your Schedule C income. Lowering your Schedule C income is a good way to reduce how much federal, state, and local income tax you owe, but that lower amount will be part of your Social Security earnings history. As a result, you may receive lower benefits in retirement, than if you didn’t take those deductions.

There’s no Social Security taxes on your wages that exceed a certain earnings threshold. The wage base for 2020 is $137,700 (up from $132,900 in 2019), and you don’t owe Social Security taxes on your earnings that are greater than that amount.

Social Security really isn’t much different whether you’re self-employed or work for someone else. Self-employed individuals earn Social Security work credits the same way employees do and qualify for benefits based on their work credits and earnings. It’s the business tax deductions that are the biggest difference. If you work for someone else, you pay Social Security taxes on all of your earnings, up to the $137,700 limit in 2020. However, if you work for yourself, deductions you claim on Schedule C can make your taxable income substantially lower. That may decrease your Social Security taxes today, but also may decrease your Social Security benefits later.

Reference: Investopedia (April 29, 2020) “How Social Security Works for the Self-Employed”

How Do Farmers Start an Estate Plan?

The Bangor Daily News explains in its article “How farmers can start an estate plan” that we all know we’re going to die, but it’s not our favorite thing to talk about. However, it’s important to start these conversations.

The article helps aging farmers who want to get started with the estate planning process, by sharing some tips to clear up some of the confusion, eliminate questions in the process and motivate you to begin your estate planning journey.

One expert described the process as a business transition. It is not unlike retirement decisions that somebody might make for a job. However, it is much more complicated, because there are many more resources to address (and perhaps many more people).

Clearly defined goals will make that transition much easier for everyone involved. Memorialize your goals by writing them down, along with your dreams for the transfer of the farm. Don’t forget to include your fears.

A basic estate plan can be as simple as a will, a medical directive and a power of attorney. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to facilitate the various elements of estate planning.

Make a complete inventory of all assets you own, including the deeds to all the tracts of land in your possession.

Identify a successor, so you know who will take over the farm when you die. It’s essential to ensuring the longevity of the farm business you worked so hard to create. As far as transferring your assets in family farm businesses, inter-generational politics can be dicey, when it comes to estate planning. It really boils down to the succession of your farm from one generation to another.

You must be certain to do this in an orderly way to make sure the needs of both generations are met.

If you don’t have a family member interested in taking over the farm, there are local agencies that can help you find young farmers to whom you can sell and who would be able to take over the business.

When it comes to estate planning, it is never too early to begin.

Reference: Bangor Daily News (March 5, 2020) “How farmers can start an estate plan”

What Exactly Is the Estate Tax?

In the U.S., we treat the estate tax and gift tax as a single tax system with unified limits and tax rates—but it is not very well understood by many people. The Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?” gives us an overview of the U.S. estate and gift tax, including what assets are included, tax rates and exemptions in 2020.

The U.S. estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households. Let’s look at why that’s the case. Americans can exempt a certain amount of assets from their taxable estate—the lifetime exemption. This amount is modified every year to keep pace with inflation and according to policy modifications. This year, the lifetime exemption is $11.58 million per person. Therefore, if you’re married, you and your spouse can collectively exclude twice this amount from taxation ($23.16 million). To say it another way, if you’re single and die in 2020 with assets worth a total of $13 million, just $1.42 million of your estate would be taxable.

However, most Americans don’t have more than $11.58 million worth of assets when they pass away. This is why the estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households in the country. It is estimated that less than 0.1% of all estates are taxable. Therefore, 99.9% of us don’t owe any federal estate taxes whatsoever at death. You should also be aware that the lifetime exemption includes taxable gifts as well. If you give $1 million to your children, for example, that counts toward your lifetime exemption. As a result, the amount of assets that could be excluded from estate taxes would be then decreased by this amount at your death.

You don’t have to pay any estate or gift tax until after your death, or until you’ve used up your entire lifetime exemption. However, if you give any major gifts throughout the year, you might have to file a gift tax return with the IRS to monitor your giving. There’s also an annual gift exclusion that lets you give up to $15,000 in gifts each year without touching your lifetime exemption. There are two key points to remember:

  • The exclusion amount is per recipient. Therefore, you can give $15,000 to as many people as you want every year, and they don’t even need to be a relative; and
  • The exclusion is per donor. This means that you and your spouse (if applicable) can give $15,000 apiece to as many people as you want. If you give $30,000 to your child to help her buy their first home and you’re married, you can consider half of the gift from each spouse.

The annual gift exclusion is an effective way for you to reduce or even eliminate estate tax liability. The estate tax rate is effectively 40% on all taxable estate assets.

Finally, the following kinds of assets aren’t considered part of your taxable estate:

  • Anything left to a surviving spouse, called “the unlimited marital deduction”;
  • Any amount of money or property you leave to a charity;
  • Gifts you’ve given that are less than the annual exclusion for the year in which they were given; and
  • Some types of trust assets.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Jan. 25, 2020) “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?”

How Will the New SECURE Act Impact My IRAs and 401(k)?

The SECURE Act is the most substantial change to our retirement savings system in over a decade, says Covering Katy (TX) News’ recent article entitled “Laws Change for IRA and 401K Retirement Savings Plans.” The new law, called the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, includes several important changes. Let’s take a look at them.

There is a higher age for RMDs. The current law says that you must start taking withdrawals or required minimum distributions from your traditional IRA and 401(k) or similar employer-sponsored plan when you turn 70½. The new law delays this to age 72, so you can hold on to your retirement savings a while longer.

No age limit for contributions to traditional IRAs. Before the new law, you could only contribute to your traditional IRA until you were 70½. However, now you can now fund your traditional IRA for as long as you have taxable earned income.

Stretch IRA Limitations. Previously, beneficiaries could stretch taxable RMDs from a retirement account over his or her lifetime. Under the SECURE Act, spouse beneficiaries can still take advantage of this “stretch” distribution, but most non-spouse beneficiaries will have to take all the RMDs by the end of the 10th year after the account owner dies. Therefore, non-spouse beneficiaries who inherit an IRA or other retirement plan could have tax issues, because of the need to take larger distributions in a shorter amount of time.

Early withdrawal penalty eliminated for IRAs and 401(k)s when new child arrives. Usually, you must pay a 10% penalty when you withdraw funds from your IRA or 401(k) if done prior to 59½. However, the new legislation allows you take out up to $5,000 from your retirement plan without paying the early withdrawal penalty, provided you withdraw the money within a year of a child being born or an adoption becoming final.

There are provisions of the SECURE Act that primarily impact business owners, which include the following:

New multi-employer retirement plans. The new law allows unrelated companies to coordinate to offer employees a 401(k) plan with less administrative work, lower costs and fewer fiduciary responsibilities than individual employers now have when offering their own retirement plans.

Tax credit for automatic enrollment. There’s now a tax credit of $500 for some small businesses that create automatic enrollment in their retirement plans. A tax credit for establishing a retirement plan has also been increased from $500 to $5,000.

Annuities in 401(k) plans. The Act makes it easier for employers to add annuities as an investment option within 401(k) plans. Before the SECURE Act, businesses avoided annuities in these plans because of the liability related to the annuity provider. However, the new rules should help decrease any concerns.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to examine the potential impact on your investment strategies and determine any possible tax and estate planning implications of the SECURE Act.

Reference: Covering Katy (TX) News “Laws Change for IRA and 401K Retirement Savings Plans”

How Do I Incorporate My Business into My Estate Planning?

When people think about estate planning, many just think about their personal property and their children’s future. If you have a successful business, you may want to think about having it continue after you retire or pass away.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later” says that many business owners believe that estate planning and getting their affairs in order happens when they’re older. While that’s true for the most part, it’s only because that’s the stage of life when many people begin pondering their mortality and worrying about what will happen next or what will happen when they’re gone. The day-to-day concerns and running of a business is also more than enough to worry about, let alone adding one’s mortality to the worry list at the earlier stages in your life.

Business continuity is the biggest concern for entrepreneurs. This can be a touchy subject, both personally and professionally, so it’s better to have this addressed while you’re in charge rather than leaving the company’s future in the hands of others who are emotionally invested in you or in your work. One option is to create a living trust and will to put in place parameters that a trustee can carry out. With these names and decisions in place, you’ll avoid a lot of stress and conflict for those you leave behind.

Let them be upset with you, rather than with each other. This will give them a higher probability of working things out amicably at your death. The smart move is to create a business succession plan that names successor trustees to be in charge of operating the business, if you become incapacitated or die.

A power of attorney document will nominate a fiduciary agent to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated, but you should also ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust to provide for the seamless transition of your business at your death to your successor trustees. The transfer of the company to your trust will avoid the hassle of probate and will ensure that your business assets are passed on to your chosen beneficiaries. Timely planning will also preserve your business assets, as advanced tax planning strategies might be implemented to establish specific trusts to minimize the estate tax.

Estate planning may not be on tomorrow’s to do list for young entrepreneurs and business owners. Nonetheless, it’s vital to plan for all that life may bring.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 30, 2019) “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later”

What If Only One Parent Is Willing to Plan?

Making matters much worse for one family, is the fact that while the mother is willing to speak with an estate planning attorney and make a plan for the future, the father won’t even discuss it. What should this family do, asks the article from nwi.com titled “Estate Planning: Can one spouse plan?”

Planning for your eventual demise and distribution of your worldly goods isn’t as much fun as planning a vacation or buying a new car. For some people, it’s too painful, even when they know that it needs to be done. There’s nothing pleasant about the idea that one day you won’t be with your loved ones.

Although contemplating the reality is unpleasant, this is a task that creates all kinds of problems for those who are left behind, if it is not done.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual for one parent to recognize the importance of having an estate plan and the other parent does not consider it to be an important task or simply refuses. In that case, the estate planning attorney can work with the spouse who is willing to go forward.

Some attorneys prefer to represent only one of the spouses, especially in a case like this. Spouses’ interests aren’t always identical, and there are situations where conflicts can arise. When a couple goes to the estate planning attorney’s office and wishes the attorney to represent both of them, sometimes the lawyer will ask for an acknowledgment that the lawyer is representing both of them as a couple. In the event that a disagreement arises or if their interests are very different, some attorneys will withdraw their representation. This is not common, but it does happen.

The estate planning lawyer usually prefers, however, to represent both spouses. Married couple’s estates tend to be intertwined, with real property jointly owned as husband and wife, or husband and husband or wife and wife. Spouses are usually named beneficiaries of life insurance and retirement accounts. Even in blended family situations, this holds true.

If the father in the situation above won’t budge, the mother should meet with the attorney and create an estate plan. The problem is, she may not be able to plan effectively for the two most common and usually the most valuable assets: their jointly owned home and retirement accounts.

If the home is owned by the spouses as “entireties property,” that is, by the couple, she can’t make changes to the title, without her spouse’s consent. One spouse cannot sever entireties property, without both spouses agreeing. Some retirement plans are also subject to the federal law ERISA, which requires a spouse’s consent to change beneficiaries to someone other than the spouse.

Even with these issues, having a plan for one spouse is better than not having any plan at all.

The only last argument that may be made to the father, is that if he does not make a plan, the laws of the state will be used, and few people actually like the idea of the state taking care of their estate.

Reference: nwi.com (Nov. 17, 2019) “Estate Planning: Can one spouse plan?”

What Should I Keep in Mind, When I Remarry?

Before you remarry, discuss any past financial issues with your fiancé, and plan for success, by considering some important ideas.

U.S. News & World Report’s recent article, “6 Financial Considerations for Remarriage,” lists six financial considerations and crucial steps to take before you remarry:

  1. Revise Your Budget. Whether this is your first, second, or third marriage, couples need to create a budget for daily spending, monthly expenses and big-ticket purchases. You should also talk about your household expenses and costs related to children from a prior marriage. If you have to pay alimony, let your new spouse know. It’s also a good time to talk about credit card debt, past investments you’ve made and retirement accounts. You may want to draft a prenuptial agreement.
  2. Inform your Fiancé of Any Financial Obligations, Including Child Support. Before getting married, review the laws to see how child support may be impacted by marriage to a new person. While it’s unlikely that you would lose your child support if you remarry, the family court may reduce the amount. If a person paying the child support is remarrying, they should talk to their partner prior to the marriage to make certain they understand the amount of the payments.
  3. Check Insurance and Benefits. A frequent mistake when remarrying, is not updating the beneficiaries of life insurance policies. You also may have to look at other updates to your coverage, like who will be on your health plan, and you may need to modify your homeowner’s insurance with a spouse and children in residence. Understand that if you get government benefits, like Medicaid or Social Security, you could forfeit your Medicaid eligibility when you remarry if your spouse’s income is too high to be eligible. You might also discover that your Social Security benefits from an ex-spouse will stop, after you remarry.

A second marriage may also increase a parent’s income for federal financial aid purposes for college. If a parent is the custodial parent for the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), their income now may include their new spouse’s income. It is important to discuss saving for college and tuition costs, as well as if either partner has children from a prior marriage, whether each spouse will save money for tuition costs.

  1. Estate Planning Is Critical. Check your estate planning before remarrying. That includes a will, medical powers of attorney, do not resuscitate orders, durable powers of attorney, designations of guardianship or consent to adoption and various trusts, including trusts for special needs children. If you have children from a prior relationship, hire a qualified estate planning attorney.
  2. Create an Inheritance Plan. If you have children from a prior relationship, you need to put the right estate planning documents in place to protect them from being disinherited. In some states, a last will and testament may be enough, but in others it may make sense to also have a revocable living trust.

The biggest mistake that couples commit when entering their second marriage, is thinking that their own children will inherit any of their estate, if they die first. Perhaps the adult children will inherit some of the estate, but you should speak to an estate attorney to create a customized strategic plan. In many instances, the living spouse will change the plan and leave everything to their children and nothing to yours.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (November 18, 2019) “6 Financial Considerations for Remarriage”

Is Medicare Coverage Free?

Medicare has a variety of expenses—including premiums, copays and deductibles. CNBC’s recent article, “Here’s what you should know about Medicare costs if you’re nearing age 65,” found that half of respondents in a recent poll by consumer website eligibility.com, said they believe Medicare is free.  If you fail to sign up on time, you may face penalties for the rest of your life.

Fidelity Investments estimates that the average male-female couple will spend at least $285,000 on health care in retirement. The items not covered by Medicare—dental, basic vision, over-the-counter medicines, long-term care—would be in addition to that amount.

If you have at least a 10-year work history, you pay no premiums for Medicare Part A. This will cover hospital stays, skilled nursing, hospice, and some home health services. However, Part A has a deductible of $1,364 per benefit period and some caps on benefits. Part B—which covers outpatient care and medical supplies—has a standard monthly premium of $135.50 (in 2019). Higher earners pay more. This part has a $185 deductible (for 2019). After it’s satisfied, you typically pay 20% of covered services.

Those parts of Medicare don’t cover prescriptions, so a Part D drug plan is needed.

You can get a separate plan to use with original Medicare, or you can enroll in an Advantage Plan (Part C). This plan usually has prescription drug coverage. If you go with this, your Parts A and B benefits also will be delivered through the insurance company offering the Advantage Plan.

The average cost for Part D coverage in 2019 is $32.50 per month, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. However, high earners pay extra for their premiums. The deductible for 2019 is $415.

If you accessed your Social Security benefits before age 65, you’ll automatically be signed up for original Medicare. A month or two before you turn 65, you’ll be automatically enrolled, and your card will be delivered in the mail. You’ll see your Social Security check decreased by the cost of the Part B premium.

If you haven’t yet used Social Security, you must enroll proactively. There’s a seven-month enrollment period that begins three months before your birthday month and ends three months after it. If you have insurance through an employer when you reach age 65, you may be able to wait to enroll in Medicare without a penalty.

Even if you don’t take medicine right now, at least sign up for the cheapest drug plan just so you don’t face a penalty. This is because if you don’t enroll in Part B when you’re supposed to, you’ll see a 10% penalty for each year that you should’ve been enrolled. The amount would be in addition to your monthly premium. Part B enrollment isn’t required, if you have medical coverage from your job.

As far as Part D, the penalty for not enrolling when you were first eligible is 1% for every month that you could have been signed up—unless you have qualifying coverage through an employer’s plan.

Many people couple their original Medicare benefits with a supplemental policy—known as Medigap—to help cover out-of-pocket costs like deductibles and coinsurance. However, you can’t pair a Medigap policy with an Advantage Plan.

If you select an Advantage Plan, there may be limited coverage for dental and vision.

Reference: CNBC (August 29, 2019) “Here’s what you should know about Medicare costs if you’re nearing age 65”